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By Russ Finley on Apr 5, 2012 with 15 responses

A Base Load Free Power System

Below I Fisk an article titled Why Germany is phasing out nuclear power by David Roberts.

Why is Germany planning to phase out nuclear power? In a nutshell, because they fear it — self-serving behavior based on irrational fear. They’re doing it because a sufficient number of German citizens have been convinced by the fear tactics used by the anti-nuclear lobby that their nuclear power poses a significant safety risk (which it doesn’t).

They will be removing from the European grid their low emission nuclear power exports while simultaneously increasing the use of fossil fuels domestically in addition to using more from the E.U. grid, which is almost entirely nuclear and fossil fueled. They are counting on that power from the E.U. grid to fill in the gaps inherent in their own renewable power. To meet their goal of 100% renewable they would have to isolate themselves from the European grid.

However, it’s unlikely that the German people could have been convinced to try this experiment had they not also been convinced that renewables are capable of taking up the slack.

The last time Roberts tried to disseminate the newest anti-nuclear argument (that nuclear power will preclude the development of renewable energy) I rebutted him in an article called Dirty, Baseload, Centralized, Renewable Energy.

The logic goes something like this; if we build too much nuclear power we will be forced to use more of its safe, economically competitive, low emissions energy and less of the energy produced by building a super grid to string together billions of solar panels and wind turbines.

It [phasing out nuclear] will probably lead to a temporary increase in carbon pollution. The hope is that it will accelerate the transition to renewables.

Phasing out nuclear will unquestionably lead to an immediate and significant increase in German carbon emissions for decades at a minimum. The loss of many tens of billions of dollars worth of sunk cost in low emission power and the income it generated, combined with the simultaneous expense of trying to replace it with renewable energy that is even more expensive, is not going to accelerate a transition to renewables. The increase in energy costs will likely do just the opposite.

Nuclear power’s proponents frequently point out that it [nuclear] is one of the only low-carbon sources that can serve as “baseload” (always on) power. Baseload power is needed, they say, because renewable sources like solar are intermittent (the sun isn’t always shining) and non-dispatchable (the sun can’t be turned on and off at will). You need large, steady, predictable power plants if you’re going to have all those flighty renewables involved.

Actually, that isn’t what nuclear power proponents say. Base load is not needed “because renewable sources like solar are intermittent.” Base load power supplies a “base load” of energy to a grid so you don’t have to add as much energy with less efficient power plants (peakers, load followers, wind, solar). The intermittent nature of solar and wind has to be dealt with using the less efficient, more expensive types of power plants. We could supply all power with peaking and load following power plants today. The only reason we use power plants designed to produce base load power  is because they are by far the most economical way to produce energy.

Hawaii’s grid gets a lot of its “base load” from diesel generators, which are normally used for peaking loads in other parts of the country. They also have very high electric rates. Nuclear is used for base load around the world simply because it is the cheapest way to add a steady base of energy to the grid (other than coal) to build on with other power sources.

Believe it or not, Germans have heard this argument before. They just think it’s wrong. They don’t think renewables and baseload are complimentary; they think they’re incompatible. In 2010, Federal Minister of the Environment Norbert Röttgen said:

” It is economically nonsensical to pursue two strategies at the same time, for both a centralized and a decentralized energy supply system, since both strategies would involve enormous investment requirements. I am convinced that the investment in renewable energies is the economically more promising project. But we will have to make up our minds. We can’t go down both paths at the same time.”

Do you see the term “base load’ in that quote by the Minister? Neither do I. What you see are the terms centralized and decentralized and they’re not synonyms of base load. Wind and solar farms are very much centralized. A city full of grid-tied rooftop solar panels would be indistinguishable from a centralized solar farm in the country. Hydro, geothermal–all centralized. In short, the German Federal Minister of the Environment does not know what he is talking about.

Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me three times.

1) Nuclear power is not dangerous

2) Renewbles are incapable of doing the job alone

3) Nuclear is not incompatible with renewables

Roberts finds that “non-energy nerds have a little trouble wrapping their heads around this…” Seems to me that if he knows any more about electrical engineering than the German Federal Minister of the Environment does he would have known better than to unwittingly pass along his gaff about centralized power being incompatible with renewables.

…so let’s walk through it with the help of this report by the German Renewable Energies Agency.

Let’s. He shows us two graphs, here and here.

Above is my version of the renewable energy graph presented by Roberts (both simplified for illustrative purposes). Assume that the green represents the wind and solar share of the Committee on Climate Change “maximum likely” contribution to humanity’s global supply from renewables by 2030 (45%).

I’m amazed that anyone would try to promote renewables with a graph like this. Look at all of that red. Renewables will be grossly inadequate. Roberts waves that glaring reality off:

 So what can fill that fluctuating gap[the red area]? It will be a combination of demand-side measures (conservation, efficiency, and “peak shaving” through demand response), energy storage, a much smarter grid, and dispatchable power sources.

Here’s the problem. Those techniques mentioned above would be equally effective at converting base load nuclear power into peaking and load following by diverting some of the steady electrical output to storage (pumping water into reservoirs, pressurizing underground caverns with air, making and/or converting hydrogen into methane), that can later be rapidly deployed to meet peak load demands. If it’s as cost effective and scalable as Roberts insinuates, he has inadvertently provided the answer for using base load nuclear power to meet peak loads.

  1. Conservation and efficiency would reduce the red area but not change its shape. However, as my Nissan Leaf strongly suggests, that red blob is only going to get bigger.
  1. Peak shaving would slightly alter the shape of the red blob but would not reduce its area (demand for power).
  1. Energy storage (load leveling) would slightly change the shape of the green blob but would also slightly reduce its area.

 These latter could include geothermal or biomass plants, but in the near term they will mostly be natural gas plants. The conclusion is clear: what’s needed to complement renewables— to cover that “residual load” — is not baseload, not big, steady, always-on power plants. The residual load will fluctuate in ways that are only partially predictable. To cover it you need options that are flexible and responsive.

The clear conclusion is that the planet does not have anywhere near enough natural gas, hydro, and geothermal to cover that red area and God help Gaia if humanity attempts to fill it in by combusting what’s left of the biosphere, never mind that a power plant burning biomass is not dispatchable and that natural gas is a fossil fuel.

I share James Hansen’s opinion expressed in his book Storms of My Grandchildren, that it would be extremely foolish to bet our children’s and grandchildren’s futures on that giant green amoeba without a lot of help from nuclear given that you have no solution for the red blob. As the above chart attests, renewables can only scale so far. The bulk of the energy will have to be generated in other ways. The only low carbon option on the table other than fossil fuels is nuclear.

 Nuclear power plants are not that. They are the opposite of that. In fact, they “have a technically mandated minimum down time of approx. 15 to 24 hours, and it takes up to 2 days to get them up and running again.” You can’t just flip them on and off as needed.

Today most nuclear is designed to be base load for economic reasons. They have no reason to be otherwise. Load following designs are in use and designs to increase that ability can be produced if a use for them arises, and then, there is Robert’s idea to divert energy to storage for peak use.

Read Electrification Nation–Why Natural Gas Won’t Save Our A**. The DOE report of their first Quadrennial Technology Review promotes the use of smallish, modular, mass produced load following nuclear designs. These could take care of most of the red area but not if the two blobs remain so irregular in shape. They will have to be smoothed out using all of the techniques mentioned above. The remaining peaks and gaps between peaks would have to be tackled by a combination of dispachable forms of renewable (hydro and geothermal), load following nuclear, and we are still going to need a lot of base load as well.

 Germany’s vision of a renewable energy future involves rapidly phasing out baseload power. The Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology modeled the renewables projected for 2020 and found that the need for baseload power will fall by half.

Yeah, well, they would say something like that wouldn’t they? It would have been smarter to say, “Let’s make $ billions selling our extra zero emissions nuclear energy to the E.U. grid and use it to pay for building more wind power!”

The stock of newer hard and brown coal power plants — i.e., those brought on line or thoroughly refitted since 1990 — amounts to 15.6 GW. In addition, new hard and brown coal power plants with a total capacity of 11.4 GW are currently under construction. This already surpasses the forecast base load needed in 2020.

So there’s already a bunch of coal in the pipeline, and unlike with nuclear, the German government has no legal means of forcing those plants to shut down.

Riiight …no legal means. A modern, sovereign first-world industrialized nation, capable of shuttering many tens of billions of dollars of profitable, low emission nuclear plants, has it hands tied when it comes to coal.

If the nuclear phaseout is delayed, there will be more baseload than necessary — and thus less renewable energy than possible — on Germany’s grid.

They could sell their excess power for profit to the E.U. grid to fund renewables, reducing the use of coal and natural gas in Europe, and if they end up with more renewables than can be compensated for with peaking power inside Germany (which is inevitable), they could sell their intermittent power to the grid as well and/or import power to shore up their renewables (which they plan to do anyway).

Shutting down nukes may be a second-best solution, but it’s in service of a baseload-free, 100 percent renewable power system — a laudable goal that, in a sane world, far more countries would share.

Irrational fear and ignorance isn’t laudable. The goal of renewables is not to be base load free. It is to reduce carbon emissions. Roberts, along with a lot of other environmentalists has lost sight of this. From Monbiot:

 The signatories of both letters to Cameron – against and for nuclear power – want to see more investment in both energy efficiency and renewables. What divides us is the aim of this investment. Those who wrote the first letter want this investment deployed to replace nuclear generation, which is by far the greatest current source of low-carbon electricity. The signatories to the second letter (Mark Lynas, Fred Pearce, Stephen Tindale, Michael Hanlon and myself) want it used to replace fossil fuels.

It is plain that we cannot do both. Reducing carbon emissions to 10% or less of current levels in the rich nations, which is the minimum required to prevent two degrees of warming, is hard enough already. To do so while also abandoning our most reliable and widespread low-carbon technology is even harder. It’s like putting on a pair of handcuffs before stepping into the boxing ring.

To suggest phasing out nuclear power when the world is faced with a climate change crisis is utter madness. It shows that some people have lost sight of which goal is more important.

 It is not a question of nuclear or renewables or efficiency. To prevent very dangerous levels of climate change, we will need all three. This was made clear by the Committee on Climate Change, which showed that the maximum likely contribution to our electricity supply from renewables by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. If nuclear power does not make up most of the remainder, the gap will be filled by fossil fuel.

 The environment movement has a choice. It has to decide whether it wants no new fossil fuels or no new nuclear power. It cannot have both. I know which side I’m on, and I know why. Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion.

I share Robert Rapier’s opinion that humanity is very unlikely to replace fossil fuel use in the time frame prescribed but that’s not the same as saying we should stop looking for solutions. The environmental movement needs more engineers and fewer ideologues twisting reality to fit their belief system.

  1. By John Bonitz on April 5, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Umm, where do you get this “a power plant burning biomass is not dispatchable”?  Utilities can dispatch coal-fired power plants, thus they can also dispatch biopower. The dispatch response may not be as fast as natural gas turbines, but it is still dispatchable.

    New nuclear is expensive.  And using nuclear in load following mode makes it even more expensive.  I’m no nuclear expert, but I don’t see where you’ve addressed cost concerns.

    These two quibbles aside, I wholeheartedly agree that “The environmental movement needs more engineers and fewer ideologues twisting reality to fit their belief system.”  

    I look forward to seeing less glib dismissals of bioenergy in your writing!

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  2. By sammyj21 on April 6, 2012 at 5:50 am

    In 2011, 25% of germany’s nuclear was phased and the entire gap was filled by renewables (arguably inefficient due to high subsidies). Increased investment in the grid to get renewable power to market, and the more efficient gas powered turbines CCGTs will combine to cover Germany’s base and peakload capacity needs, and also keep emissions in check.

    I do agree that its foolish and short sighted to phase nuclear out, however the renewables train will continue to roll given the european targets set for 2020 and you will see increased efficiency going forward as technologies improve.  Also much of the energy requirements could come from Hydro in Norway and Austria in the future.

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  3. By Moiety on April 6, 2012 at 9:38 am

    I wrote something on this a while ago; feel free to read. I broadly agree with the sentiment that the timeframes are too short. I fairly often get labled as not green for that sentiment.

     

    http://themoiety.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/german-nuclear-folly.html

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  4. By Russ Finley on April 7, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Thanks for that link MOIETY. That’s an excellent article.

    John Bonitz  said:

    Umm, where do you get this “a power plant burning biomass is not dispatchable”?  Utilities can dispatch coal-fired power plants, thus they can also dispatch biopower. The dispatch response may not be as fast as natural gas turbines, but it is still dispatchable.

    You have a good point in that dispatch is a matter of degree. As with nuclear, you can’t rapidly turn most coal and biomass plants off and on. Firing up boilers takes time. So they are less dispatchable than say, natural gas or diesel, as you point out. You can increase and decrease their output if so designed, which puts them in the category of load following, and some nuclear does that as well.

    But the larger point is that the burning of biomass is something that also can’t scale very far before it becomes worse than fossil fuels.  The biomass plants in Europe are mostly importing their fuel now and where that biomass is coming from is anyone’s guess. I once watched the forest next to my forest property get logged to make paper fiber.

    New nuclear is expensive.

    New nuclear is expensive in the sense that there is a lot of capital up front, but it has historically always paid for itself. The problem with using cost as an argument against nuclear, is that the argument applies to renewables as well. The cost of replacing my electric use with solar panels on my house is roughly $60K, and that does not include a monthly grid use fee that is inevitable should solar scale high enough. Fossil fuels are hard to beat economically.

    And using nuclear in load following mode makes it even more expensive.  I’m no nuclear expert, but I don’t see where you’ve addressed cost concerns.

    I addressed them in several places. Click on the DOE report links that suggest smaller  modular nuclear designs. Indeed, load following mode is more expensive, as it is for any power source, including gas peaker plants, and that is the whole argument for base load–it is less expensive. But again, look at that graph. Your cost argument is equally applicable to renewables. As Roberts inadvertently  suggested, you can turn nuclear into a peaker or load follower by coupling elevated water reservoirs to them, which would be expensive  …just as expensive as coupling them to renewables. But I’m repeating myself. This was addressed in the article.

    I look forward to seeing less glib dismissals of bioenergy in your writing!

    Because this article was about using nuclear to assist renewables, my mention of biomass was, out of a need for brevity, short and admittedly critical as well.

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  5. By Russ Finley on April 7, 2012 at 1:12 pm

    By John Bonitz on

    In 2011, 25% of germany’s nuclear was phased and the entire gap was filled by renewables (arguably inefficient due to high subsidies).

    I’m not against renewables. A link to a source to back that up would be nice. I am wondering how you can instantly turn off 25% of your nuclear electricity and instantly bring on line 25% more renewables.

    Increased investment in the grid to get renewable power to market …

    Increased investment in the grid will eventually usher in a monthly grid use fee for renwables (you may have solar panels on your house but you will have to pat $30 a month to tie them to the grid) and the above graph assumes that the grid is not a limiting factor for the size of the green blob.
     

    …and the more efficient gas powered turbines CCGTs will combine to cover Germany’s base and peakload capacity needs, and also keep emissions in check.

     
    My article is a rebuttal of what you just said, which is what Roberts also said. His graph was for German energy. Extrapolate it to global energy. You are not going to replace the red area with natural gas, a fossil fuel.

    German emissions have already grown significantly. Coal is being used for baseload. Time will tell who is right on the emission issue.

    I do agree that its foolish and short sighted to phase nuclear out, however the renewables train will continue to roll given the european targets set for 2020 and you will see increased efficiency going forward as technologies improve.  Also much of the energy requirements could come from Hydro in Norway and Austria in the future.

    Efficiency reduces emissions for any energy source, so we can’t really claim it just for renewables. Hydro from other countries is not German renewable energy. If Germany uses it to replace its nuclear, somebody in Europe will  use coal to replace what Germany usurps.

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  6. By notKit P on April 7, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Russ does a good job explaining base load which is produced by a steam plant which includes CCGT and biomass. Load following is performed by adjustment of steam to the turbine or changing the flow in a hydroelectric if the storage is available. In the spring and fall many steam plants are off line because the power is not needed. If a steam plant trips unexpected then mostly likely a ‘dispatchable’ reserves source like a SSGT will startup quickly. By the next day, the next most expense steam plant will be running.

     

    “New nuclear is expensive. ”

     

    All new steam plants are expensive and will produce power at about the same cost which is $60-$80 per MWh. A new CCGT and new nuke power plant

     

    The nice thing about ‘expensive’ steam plants is that they last a very long time and do a very good job of making electricity as a very cheap commodity.

     

    The reason we do not make very much power with wind and solar is the opposite. The equipment does not last very long and does not do a good job a making electricity. Last I checked new wind turbines are expensive’ but there are no old wind turbines, making power that is.

     

    Since new steam plants will become old steam plants, we should talk about old power plants, There is not a fossil plant in the world that can make power cheaper than a nuke. Shutting down a nuke plant that is running well is replacing $20 per MWh with $80 per MWh power. Shutting down 4 large nukes will cost the utility a billion a year. Ouch!

     

    The most efficient CCGT can beat old inefficient coal-based power plant some places,

     

    The result of removing the lowest cost base load plant is to shift the generation to higher cost fossil plants. What happens to the cost of fossil fuel when demand increases? That right the cost goes up.

     

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  7. By Russ Finley on April 7, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Correction and apologies, my above response is to sammyj21.

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  8. By Moiety on April 10, 2012 at 11:38 am

    Russ

    This will also be of interest; that is a summary of the first phase of an experiment/model where the feasibility of using 100% renewable power spread across biogas, wind and solar was assessed.

    http://www.kombikraftwerk.de/fileadmin/downloads/Technik_Kombikraftwerk_EN.pdf

    Pegging back to the .de site will give the Gemran website and information on phase two. The scope was far too small to be useful (1/10000 current: meaning in my opinion a false positive) but is interesting none the less. Supply of the raw materials for biogas were not included. One of interesting results from what I understand is that it is possible but the over-supply can be enormous.

    Unfortunately for phase two we have the quote below (translated from German); not a great start in my opinion.

    Our practice test will show that a full supply is realistic to assume

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    • By Russ Finley on April 10, 2012 at 9:54 pm

      Thanks for the link, MOIETY.

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  9. By Donald on May 19, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    thorium nukes might be ok.

    thanks dad,

    ChangeItOrDrownIt

    B 36 Ears

    Don

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  10. By BillZ on May 27, 2012 at 6:13 am

    This “fisk” completely fails. David Roberts understands what is happening and why in Germany. Russ Finley does not – he is stuck in the 20th century with his concept of massive, centralised energy generation. The future is a distributed grid of micro generation from renewable energy sources.

     

    > “Irrational fear and ignorance isn’t laudable.”

     

    Irrational denial of the catastrophic risks that come attached to nuclear reactors is even less laudable. The Germans decided in the 1990s to close all nukes by 2022. This decision is supported by the overwhelming majority of the German people – it seems that this democratic process upsets the nuclear fan club.

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  11. By Russ Finley on May 28, 2012 at 2:07 am

    This “fisk” completely fails.

    Translation: “I don’t want to believe what you said.”

    David Roberts understands what is happening and why in Germany.

    Uh huh …Germany is shuttering tens of billions of dollars of sunk cost in low emission nuclear (instead of coal, which they are actually expanding) to make way for renewables.

    It is utterly nonsensical that you would keep coal and shutter nuclear if your goal is to reduce emissions by building more renewables. You would get rid of the coal, keep the nuclear and expand renewables.

    Russ Finley does not – he is stuck in the 20th century with his concept of massive, centralised energy generation. The future is a distributed grid of micro generation from renewable energy sources.

    I take it you didn’t read the entire article. Windmill and solar farms are massive and centralized. Any urban center with enough rooftop solar is analogous to a massive, centralized solar farm.  Almost all renewable energy is and will continue to be centralized. There is no goal or plan to decentralize power generation. How that idea got started is a mystery to me but dumb ideas can bounce around the internet for years.

    Irrational denial of the catastrophic risks that come attached to nuclear reactors is even less laudable.

    On one hand you seem to agree that the Germans are closing the plants because they fear them. Your argument hangs on the definition of irrational fear. Failures of large dams have been known to kill hundreds of thousands. A volcanic eruption similar to the Tambora event would devastate a civilization dependent on solar.

    Studies indicate minimal health risks from Fukushima:

    http://blogs.nature.com/news/2012/05/world-health-organization-weighs-in-on-fukushima.html

    This decision is supported by the overwhelming majority of the German people – it seems that this democratic process upsets the nuclear fan club.

    I’m not upset. Got nothing against the democratic process. A recent poll shows that a big majority of Americans and British don’t fear nuclear power. Why the German’s fear it and we don’t is up for debate but keeping coal and throwing away tens of billions of dollars of sunk cost in zero carbon energy doesn’t sound very rational to me.

     

     

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  12. By notKit P on May 28, 2012 at 9:16 am

    When an accident with BillZ’s micro generation generation system kills his children what will he think about the ‘catastrophic risks’ of nuke plants? We do not let children play near central generating stations. First there is the practical side of making power, then there is the risk involved, I will explain both.

     

    So BillZ tell me how your ‘micro generation from renewable energy sources’ is working?

     

    For many years I heated with wood. It is a lot of work and requires about 5-10 acres of land to sustainable. If homes are in a city on small lots, renewable energy is going to create a substantial amount of air pollution.

     

    The only practical source of home renewable energy is wood. It is practical for only a few. It is the dirties and most dangerous way to get energy.

     

    So BillZ even if you are willing to put in the effort to supply your energy, industry, hospitals, schools, sewage treatment plants all need power. That power will come from a base load steam plant. While they are at it, I will let them provided power to me by opening the turbine control valve just a little more. That how about 99.99% of Americans do it.

     

    BillZ I do not think you understand the ‘democratic process’ either. You are free not to buy power or you are free to make your own power if. If you make your own power, then you have to ensure that you do not endanger public safety or harm the environment.

     

    What you can not do BillZ is show that your way of making power has less risk than ‘catastrophic risks’ you claim. The risk of core damage is required to be less than one in 10 million. Even so nuke plants are designed so that even if there is an accident, no one is hurt. The risk of actually killing someone from a LWR is about one in a billion. That is a very small number, hardly what one would call catastrophic.

     

    In Japan, three reactors had what we call a ‘severe accident’ which are beyond design basis events. No one was hurt by radiation. This is in the context of a ‘catastrophic’ natural disaster that killed 20,000. As it turns out, no one would have been killed even if local residents had not been evacuated. It was just a precaution.

     

    There is another way of saying one in a billion. It is physically impossible to accidentally kill BillZ’s or my children or any children with radiation from a LWR. It would require the intentional act of busing them and making then stand next to an operating reactor.

     

    Statistically LWR is about one in a billion. What about the alternative?

     

    The manufacturing standard to put a ‘micro generation’ unit in your home is one in a million fatal accident per unit. The standard is lower because the owner of the ‘micro generation’ assumes the risk and responsibility for the unit.

     

    Of course this is why we have central generating stations. The term NIMBY was popularized because of people like BillZ do not want to live next to a power plant. I lived on a ship with a nuke plant. The only sleep I lost is standing watch. So while I am way over qualified when it comes to making electricity, I do not want to do it at home.

     

    Statistically making your own energy is about one in a million. So do we see fatalities? All the time but is mostly because accidents associated with stupidity not failure of the equipment itself.

     

    The point here is that there is no ‘catastrophic risks’ from nuke plants. Certainly not a case of denial because part of my job is to ensure that the risks of producing power with nukes is very small. Second risk can not be avoided because there is risk in every way of power production. Time to go out an run power tools. I have a dead tree. I can use a chain saw to cut it down or just way for it to fall. Risk either way.

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  13. By Russ Finley on May 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    Apologies to Bill for Kit’s comment, which, by the way, contained roughly twenty grammatical errors. He characteristically taunts other commenters by repetition of their name (seven times in this case). Think of him as our village troll or (pick your own word).

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    • By Robert Rapier on May 29, 2012 at 5:06 am

      Kit has been removed from the board before, and neither Sam nor I agreed to let him come back. I had been deleting his comments, but we have gotten careless and let some of them stay up. But he is not going to behave as he has in the past. He obviously has affection for this site; he would not stay away even when we tried to make him stay away. But he will treat other posters with courtesy, or he will not post here.

      RR

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